Those of us who write about politics are faced with a dilemma over how to cover Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old who unexpectedly defeated a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district and went on to win the general election virtually unopposed in a heavily Democratic district.
On the one hand, it was definitely newsworthy that Ocasio-Cortez defeated an establishment Democratic politician by challenging him from the far left. (She is a self-declared socialist.) On the other hand, she is only a freshman congressman, who has proven to be painfully ignorant and willfully naive, confusing the branches of government and repeatedly evading basic questions about how to pay for the massive new federal spending that she proposes. Yet she thrives on her ability to draw outsized publicity: gaining a huge following on social media, benefiting from puff-piece reporting in the mainstream media, being interviewed on venerable old shows like “60 Minutes,” and even reaching the exalted level of being known only by an acronym, “AOC.”
Hence the dilemma. To talk about her, even to criticize her inane pronouncements, is to provide her with the kind of publicity that raises her above other, more sensible voices. Yet to ignore her means allowing her to broadcast to a large audience with no pushback against her massive lies and evasions. There is evidence that she is already moving the Democratic Party to the left thanks to “2.1 million Twitter followers and a press that will cover anything you say.” As another observer puts it, “They used to talk about the Oprah effect. I think it’s the Ocasio effect at this point.”
If this dilemma sounds familiar, it’s because we wrestled with it back in 2015 when a publicity-obsessed reality TV star began sucking all of the oxygen out of the Republican primaries. To criticize him was to make him the center of attention, which he so obviously wanted to be, but to ignore him was to leave his absurdities unanswered. Many of us wavered between the two approaches, and I’m not sure whether a different strategy on our part would have made much difference in the end. Donald Trump is a mistake a lot of Republicans seemed determined to make.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might be the kind of mistake Democrats want to make right now—though fortunately for both them and us, they have one more election cycle before she is constitutionally eligible to serve as president. Yet the phenomenon is significant not just because of Ocasio-Cortez herself, but because of the similarities between her rise and Trump’s. Donald Trump will eventually fade from the political scene, but Ocasio-Cortez is a sign that the Trump approach—fueled by social media groupthink, heavy on personality and celebrity, and light on thought and substance—is here to stay, and it is becoming bipartisan.
There are many differences between the two characters, in age, wealth, and policy ideas (such as they are). But they have both figured out a way of communicating to their base that pushes themselves onto the center stage of American politics and makes everyone else respond to them. Consider the parallels.
The foundation of this political style is to make absurd, pandering promises without even the slightest attempt at plausibility. The key to Donald Trump’s success at mobilizing a fanatically loyal base of supporters was his willingness to pander shamelessly to a group of voters who were not used to being pandered to. They were used to being thrown a bone in the form of a few limited promises or carefully worded phrases about “border security” intended to express vague sympathy without alienating other constituencies. Donald Trump, by contrast, went all in. He is the one who told them that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that immigration is a national emergency that is destroying the country, and that he was going to seal us off behind a concrete barrier. Any politician operating according to the old rules would have been terrified of all the voters he would repulse with this rhetoric—and he might have quailed at the sheer impossibility of delivering on a promise, not only to build the wall, but to make Mexico pay for it.
Similarly, the thing that is most annoying about Ocasio-Cortez, her carefully cultivated naiveté and blithe assurances that we can pay for a fantastically generous welfare state without getting the money from anywhere in particular, is the whole key to her appeal. The “progressive” left loves her because she’s not a cautious, ordinary politician who lets the pesky details of taxation and economics get in the way of their socialist dream.
But if you’re going to promise everything with no idea how to deliver it, you had better not have to put up with much scrutiny. That leads us to the similarity that is starting to draw explicit comparisons between Ocasio-Cortez and Trump: their running battles with the media and especially with anyone whose job is to check their factual accuracy.
Trump, of course, keeps railing against the “fake news” media. As for Ocasio-Cortez, she recently claimed that $21 trillion of the $40 trillion that she needs to fund her socialist welfare state can be found by sorting out accounting errors in the Pentagon budget. This claim is so outrageously wrong—$21 trillion is larger than the cumulative total of all defense budgets in the nation’s history—that Washington Post fact-checkers awarded it “four pinocchios,” designating a flagrant lie. So in a tweetstorm a few days ago, Ocasio-Cortez pushed back against this rating—in every way except by defending her factual accuracy. She complained about “false equivalency plus bias” because the fact-checkers gave “my confusing tweet on military accounting offsets the same ‘Pinocchios’ as Trump’s flat denial of how many Americans died in Puerto Rico.” She implied that she was being singled out for persecution because she was fact-checked at all, since she has only been in Congress for a few days. The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler shot back “We have fact-checked you twice. We have fact-checked 7,645 Trump claims.” But even after being fact-checked on her fact-check of the fact-checkers, Ocasio-Cortez continued to imply that it was unfair for her to be criticized.
The purpose of these complaints is not merely to defend herself on a specific claim. It is to preemptively invalidate any future unflattering reporting or criticism. She ended her assault on the fact-checkers by quoting a former Hillary Clinton press flack who complains about “male reporters loudly nitpicking about @AOC’s verbal mistakes,” and replies, “This is why we question, by the way—because women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT+, & the poor have been treated unfairly in the past. And when many of the decision-making rooms aren’t as diverse as they should be, communities fairly ask: ‘is it happening to us, again?'” So any future news report which shows Ocasio-Cortez demonstrating her ignorance of basic facts can be dismissed out of hand as just the bias of old white men who resent a young Hispanic woman.
All of this serves the same function as Trump’s railing against “fake news,” but in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, she wants to dismiss anything she doesn’t like as racist news.
The effect is to create another element of the Trump phenomenon: a claque of supporters who will excuse anything you do and rationalize anything you say. So when she is caught telling a flagrant falsehood about an issue central to the agenda she became famous for promoting, it is dismissed as merely a “confusing tweet” not worth “nitpicking.” A hallmark of this approach is constantly seeking publicity, then constantly complaining that your critics are “obsessed” because they occasionally talk about you. Trump’s supporters do it, and so do Ocasio-Cortez’s. In fact, Trump and Ocasio-Cortez love the obsession and thrive on criticism, and part of how they appeal to their core supporters is that they constantly “trigger” the opposition. Witness the manufactured controversy over a dance video Ocasio-Cortez participated in while she was in college, which was recently re-posted on the Internet. This spawned a media narrative of “right-wing outrage” over…a college girl dancing? This was precious little evidence to support the idea that any prominent person on the right cared about the video at all. But the narrative had already served its purpose, and Ocasio-Cortez milked it for all it was worth, responding, “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous.” Just as Donald Trump needs his opponents tut-tutting about the fact that he served cheap fast food on silver platters to athletes visiting the White House—so he can promote the narrative that his critics are elites out of touch with the common man—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs conservatives to be constantly outraged by every little thing she does or says.
This is one of the key innovations Donald Trump brought to politics: the idea that getting into trouble and staying in trouble is not something to be avoided but to be cultivated. The ordinary politician (or the ordinary person) would assume that it’s desirable, if possible, to avoid saying or doing anything likely to give offense, because drama and controversy are unpleasant and might ruin your reputation. An ordinary politician would assume that he can depend on his supporters to rally behind him when he gets in trouble, but he dare not call on their support too often for fear of drawing down his account of good will.
Trump turned that on its head. Having mastered the rules of tabloid gossip and reality TV, he learned that it is necessary to be constantly in trouble, constantly mired in controversy, constantly picking fights, and constantly calling upon your fans to rally to your support. Far from exhausting your core supporters, he discovered, this invigorates them. In the realms of gossip, reality TV, and professional wrestling, sticking up for your idol is a team sport that forges the fans’ identities and conditions them to mount the kind of reflexive defense Trump requires. What he found is that this is also true of talk radio, cable TV news, and political Twitter.
It is no accident that this shared Trump-Ocasio-Cortez approach has become more pervasive and influential during the era of social media. The great thing about the Internet is that it broke down barriers to entry and bypassed the old media gatekeepers. But that also means it is easier for pandering populists to make an end run around anyone who asks them to make sense or to know what they’re talking about, or who might simply decide that their rantings are not worth talking about.
Social media has produced a strange new form of celebrity, that of the social media “influencers” who are literally famous for being famous, who become known to the public only by means of their ability to get other people to gawk at them. Donald Trump came to this form of celebrity by more old-fashioned means: first by learning how to keep himself constantly in the gossip columns of the New York tabloids, then by making himself a personality in the fake drama and celebrity catfights of reality TV, all before discovering his dream medium of Twitter. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a native of the social media era, and while older politicians like Elizabeth Warren struggle awkwardly with new media like live-streaming, she slips into these roles comfortably.
Politics has always been susceptible to a certain degree of demagoguery and flim-flam, and in that respect Trump and Ocasio-Cortez are more normal than we would like to think. But it’s time to recognize that this is getting out of hand, that empty celebrity is drowning out everything else, and that our cultural defenses against demagoguery are become perilously weak.
Above all else, it’s time to recognize that when we tolerate this on our side because it appalls and angers people we don’t like, we are unleashing the same approach from politicians on the other side by knocking down the standards of moral and intellectual seriousness that we ought to require from those who want to lead us.